A two-week survey of the waters around one collection of Greek islands and islets in September turned into an archaeological bonanza when a joint Greek-American team discovered no fewer than 22 ancient shipwrecks. While the oldest dates back some 2,500 years, and the most recent met its fate in the 16th century, the majority of the shipwrecks can be traced to the Late Roman Period (A.D. 300-600) and the rise of the eastern Roman Empire at Constantinople. By studying the cargoes of these ancient ships—all that remains after centuries underwater—scientists hope to illuminate the ancient trade network that once connected the entire Mediterranean region.

When a team of archaeologists began their survey of the area around the Fourni archipelago (a collection of 13 islands and islets in the eastern Aegean, between the islands of Samos and Icaria) in September, they found an ancient shipwreck on their very first day. They took it as a good sign, but they never imagined how good. Over the course of the next two weeks, the duration of their survey permit, the scientists found 21 more wrecks, including—at one point about halfway through—six on a single day. At that point, they decided to stop looking for new wrecks and concentrate on recording information from ones they had already found, but they still managed to stumble on a few more in the remaining days.

The 22 shipwrecks turned up in the survey, a joint effort of the Hellenic Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities and the Florida-based RPM Nautical Foundation, represent a spike of some 12 percent in the total known number of ancient shipwrecks in Greece. The earliest wreck dates to the Archaic Period (700-480 B.C.), making it more than 2,500 years old, while the most recent is from the Late Medieval Period (16th century). The team found ships from the Classical Period (480-323 B.C.) and the Hellenistic Period (323-31 B.C.) as well, but by far the most ships—a total of 12—were wrecked sometime during the Late Roman Period (A.D. 300 to 600).

Credit: Vasilis Mentogianis

A press release announcing the finds last week said the Fourni archipelago “may be the ancient shipwreck capital of the world.” Though the waters around major harbors such as Copenhagen, Pisa or London have yielded a comparable number of ancient wrecks, the new find is particularly notable because of the relative obscurity of the location. There was no major settlement or port located in Fourni, but the archipelago apparently functioned as a crucial passageway for ancient ships.

The archaeologists believe some of the ships encountered strong storms, with fierce winds that dashed them against cliffs and rock formations in shallow waters. The large number of shipwrecks found near Fourni does not indicate that the area was particularly dangerous, but that it saw a very high volume of traffic over a long period of time. Survey co-director Peter Campbell, an underwater archaeologist at the University of Southampton, told the Washington Post that he estimates there was probably no more than one shipwreck every 100 years.

Credit: Vasilis Mentogianis

The wooden ships themselves, as well as any human remains, clothing or other organic materials, have long since rotted away after centuries underwater. Divers identified each wreck by the hundreds of pieces of pottery that represent the bulk of a ship’s cargo, spread out from a distinct area. These amphoras, tall clay jars with two handles and necks of varying widths, hold the residue of their ancient contents. By studying the size and shape of the amphoras, scientists can determine what the ships were carrying, where they came from and when they sank. Examination of the residue (including DNA analysis) will determine the jars’ contents, but the scientists already know that the main trade goods in the region at the time were olive oil, wine and fish sauce, while the smaller jars might have contained luxury commodities like perfume, as well as jam, honey, fruits and nuts.

All 22 ships were merchant vessels, as opposed to warships, and all were following the same trade route, which wound southward from the North Aegean and the Black Sea region to the Levant (modern-day Lebanon, Israel and Jordan), Cyprus and even Egypt. Archaeologists have traced this shipping route in historical texts, but the new finds provide rare physical evidence of the ships’ travels, allowing them to learn more about the evolution of trade routes and maritime technology. They believe the relatively large percentage of ships from the late Roman period is likely due to the rise of the Eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople, in the 4th century A.D.

So far, the team of archaeologists has surveyed only 5 percent of Fourni’s coast, suggesting there may still be more shipwrecks to uncover in nearby waters. Though Campbell and his colleagues are applying for a survey permit for next year in the same area, they undoubtedly do not expect a windfall of anywhere near the same scale.